Lanford Wilson Wilson, Lanford (Vol. 197) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lanford Wilson 1937-

American playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Wilson's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 14, and 36.

A prolific writer of experimental and traditional drama, Wilson launched his career at the avant-garde Caffe Cino during the off-off-Broadway movement of the 1960s. He later co-founded the renowned Circle Repertory Company, for which he wrote many of his major works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly (1979). Through his dynamic characters, many of whom are misfits of low social class, Wilson has explored issues of alienation, solitude, and disillusionment. His plays address themes of family conflict, gender roles and expectations, sexual identity, and the changing social landscape of America. He has been widely regarded for the authenticity and poetic rhythm of his dialogue. Wilson's style, frequently compared to those of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, is categorized as lyrical realism but frequently employs such nonrealistic devices as monologue, symbolic characters, and direct address of the audience. Wilson has enjoyed success both on and off Broadway and his works are among the most regularly produced plays in regional, college, and community theaters. Wilson remains an important voice in American playwriting, as evidenced by numerous revival productions of his plays, including Balm in Gilead, Burn This, and 5th of July, which were first produced in 1965, 1987, and 1978, respectively.

Biographical Information

Wilson was born on April 13, 1937, in the town of Lebanon, Missouri, a setting the author often revisited in his works. When he was five years old, Wilson's parents divorced and his father moved to California. After transferring from Southwest Missouri State University to San Diego State University in 1955, Wilson was briefly reunited with his father, an event which provided inspiration for the highly autobiographical play Lemon Sky (1968). Wilson relocated to Chicago in 1956, where he began writing one-act dramas; in 1962, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in playwriting. In 1963, Caffe Cino produced Wilson's one-act So Long at the Fair, propelling Wilson into a period of intense creativity. He wrote at a frenetic pace throughout the 1960s, with most of his work premiering at Caffe Cino and other off-off-Broadway venues. Wilson's most important early plays were the full-length pieces Balm in Gilead and The Rimers of Eldritch (1966). After the suicide of Caffe Cino's producer, Joe Cino, Wilson began to utilize regional theater as a means to produce his work. In 1969, Wilson co-founded the Circle Repertory Company in Greenwich Village. He was the group's playwright-in-residence until it disbanded in 1996. With the Circle Repertory Company, Wilson produced many of his most critically and commercially successful plays: Serenading Louie (1970), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), and The Mound Builders (1975). Wilson introduced his Talley cycle—three plays about a Midwestern family set in Wilson's birthplace—with 1978's 5th of July, followed by Talley's Folley in 1979, and A Tale Told, later revised as Talley & Son, in 1981. In 1987, Wilson penned three plays in rapid succession, including the acclaimed Burn This. Wilson has continued to produce plays throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.

Major Works

Balm in Gilead, Wilson's first full-length play, is a documentary-like piece depicting the lives of drug addicts, dealers, pimps, prostitutes, drag queens, and hustlers—the denizens of an all-night diner in New York City. In 1966, Wilson premiered his second full-length work, The Rimers of Eldritch, which opened at Cafe La Mama and moved off-Broadway later that year. The Rimers of Eldritch champions outcast characters and is set in a narrow-minded Midwestern town. Lemon Sky is perhaps Wilson's most personal play, a memory piece set in San Diego about a teenage boy's attempt to reconcile with his estranged father. A major critical and commercial success, The Hot l Baltimore is a lament for the past and an affirmation of humanity's ability to endure, as destitute inhabitants of a once-grandiose hotel await its demolition. In The Mound Builders, Wilson focuses on an idealistic past and the detrimental effects of modern progress. The Mound Builders centers on a team of archaeologists attempting to protect their discovery of an ancient Native American civilization from land development. 5th of July introduces the characters Ken Talley, Jr., who is a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, his homosexual lover, and his Aunt Sally. When faced with the decision of whether to sell the family home, Ken elects not to sell, affirming values of family and tradition. A younger Aunt Sally appears in Wilson's Talley's Folly, the story of Sally Talley's forbidden courtship and elopement with Matt Friedman, a Jewish accountant. A Tale Told, the third and final installment in the Talley cycle, is set on July 4, 1944, the same night as Talley's Folly, and presents additional members of the Talley clan who decide to sell the family garment business to a conglomerate. In Burn This, Wilson touches on the theme of intimacy in the face of grief, exploring human sexuality and love through the characters of Anna, who is a dancer, and Pale, the incendiary brother of Anna's recently deceased roommate. Returning to earlier themes and subject matter, Wilson examined small-town hypocrisy and the search for community in Book of Days (1998). In Rain Dance (2000), set in 1945 in New Mexico, the birth of the atomic age brings together an American scientist, a Native American, and two German immigrants, each of whom has contributed in some way to the development of the atom bomb.

Critical Reception

Wilson has been acclaimed by critics, actors, and audiences alike. Scholars have praised his inventive use of dialogue, and from his earliest works, reviewers have consistently noted Wilson's skill with language. Reflecting on Balm in Gilead, critic Anne M. Dean stated: “For all the play's visual brilliance, for me its greatest strength resides in its manipulation of language.” Wilson has been lauded for his ability to transform everyday vernacular into poetry. Commentators have observed his adept characterizations, particularly marking his compassionate depiction of society's outcasts. Wilson's talent for developing dynamic, intriguing characters has earned him a reputation as an “actor's playwright.” Audiences have admired Wilson's accessible, realistic style and tender characters, making him one of the most commercially successful playwrights of his time. Wilson has been honored with numerous awards for his craft, including the Vernon Rice Award, the Obie, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. However, critical praise of Wilson's work is not unanimous; some reviewers have bemoaned his writing as sentimental, overly conventional, and pretentious. Despite these charges, critics have widely considered Wilson an important contributor to American theater.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

So Long at the Fair (play) 1963

Home Free! (play) 1964

The Madness of Lady Bright (play) 1964

No Trespassing (play) 1964

Balm in Gilead (play) 1965

Days Ahead (play) 1965

Ludlow Fair (play) 1965

The Sand Castle (play) 1965

Sex Is Between Two People (play) 1965

This Is the Rill Speaking (play) 1965

The Rimers of Eldritch (play) 1966

Wandering: A Turn (play) 1966

Miss Williams: A Turn (play) 1967

The Gingham Dog (play) 1968

Lemon Sky (play) 1968

One Arm [adaptor; from Tennessee Williams's short story] (screenplay) 1970

Serenading Louie (play) 1970

The Great Nebula in Orion (play) 1971

Sextet (Yes): A Play for Voices (play) 1971

Summer and Smoke [adaptor; from Tennessee Williams's play] (libretto) 1971

The Family Continues (play) 1972

Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye (play) 1972

The Hot l Baltimore (play) 1973

The Migrants [with Tennessee Williams] (screenplay) 1973

The Mound Builders (play) 1975

Brontosaurus (play) 1977

5th of July (play) 1978; revised as Fifth of July, 1982

Taxi (screenplay) 1978

Talley's Folly (play) 1979

*A Tale Told (play) 1981; revised as Talley & Son, 1985

Thymus Vulgaris (play) 1981

Angels Fall (play) 1982

The Three Sisters [translator; from Anton Chekhov's play] (play) 1984

A Betrothal (play) 1986

The Bottle Harp (play) 1987

Burn This (play) 1987

Say DeKooning (play) 1987

A Poster of the Cosmos (play) 1988

The Moonshot Tape (play) 1990

Redwood Curtain (play) 1991

By the Sea by the Sea by the Beautiful Sea (play) 1996

Book of Days (play) 1998

Rain Dance (play) 2000

*Initially, this play was titled Regarding the Bosom of Abraham. Also produced as The War in Lebanon.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 13 June 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Theater.” New Republic 162, no. 2894 (13 June 1970): 18, 31.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann provides a somewhat unfavorable assessment of Lemon Sky, contending that it “accomplishes little.”]

Three new off-Broadway productions [Colette, by Ellen Stewart; Lemon Sky, by Lanford Wilson; and The Me Nobody Knows, by Orpheum] underline a familiar truth: American performing is better than American writing. …

Christopher Walken [in Lemon Sky,] is a talented young actor at the other end of the spectrum from Miss Caldwell [cast as the title character in...

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Lanford Wilson and Esther Harriott (interview date December 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and Esther Harriott. “Interview with Lanford Wilson.” In American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, pp. 36-58. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1988.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in December 1982, Wilson discusses his penchant for developing complex characters.]

I met with Lanford Wilson in December 1982 at the offices of the Circle Repertory Theater in New York. Wilson was a co-founder of the theater in 1969 and has been a resident playwright there ever since. Every room was in bustling use, and Wilson suggested that we walk to a café in the neighborhood.


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Leslie Kane (essay date 1985-86)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kane, Leslie. “The Agony of Isolation in the Drama of Anton Chekhov and Lanford Wilson.” Philological Papers 31 (1985-86): 20-6.

[In the following essay, Kane compares Wilson to Anton Chekhov in terms of their preference for realism in their works and their characterizations of solitude.]

In contemporary drama we have become accustomed to the drifter, the loner, the single—a character who is emotionally detached from others and who quests, usually with little success, for connections. This problem of isolation is not a new one, nor is it a peculiarly contemporary one. The agony of isolation and the efforts of characters to mitigate that agony received...

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Lanford Wilson and David Savran (interview date 1 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and David Savran. “Lanford Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, pp. 306-20. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

[In the following interview, originally conducted December 1, 1986, Wilson discusses his early theatrical experiences, influences, and writing style.]

Born in Lebanon, Missouri, in 1937, Lanford Wilson was five when his parents divorced. His father moved to California (he wasn't to see him again for thirteen years) and he lived with his mother in a succession of rented houses before going to Chicago in 1956. There he took several jobs and finally moved to New York to become a playwright....

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Mark Busby (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Busby, Mark. “Lanford Wilson.” In Lanford Wilson, edited by Wayne Chatterton and James H. Maguire, pp. 5-52. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1987.

[In the following essay, Busby discusses Wilson's Midwestern roots as inspiration for his plays.]

Vincent, the main character in Lanford Wilson's first Broadway play, The Gingham Dog, explains that he left his small Kentucky town for New York because he was “sick of small people—ambitions—hopes—small hopelessness,” and he thought that New Yorkers “could comprehend something outside themselves, respond.” It was perhaps a similar attraction that brought Lanford Wilson from a small farm...

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Richard Hornby (essay date spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. “The Decline of the American Musical Comedy.” Hudson Review 41, no. 1 (spring 1988): 182-88.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses Burn This and compares Wilson with other contemporary playwrights.]

Lanford Wilson's Burn This concerns three young people—two dancers and a copywriter—who share a Soho loft. The male dancer, a homosexual, has just died in a boating accident, and it becomes clear, in their grief, that the two remaining roommates were in love with him. The female dancer has a boyfriend, a successful screenwriter, whom she likes but does not really love; when the dead roommate's brother arrives, a bizarre,...

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Rudolf Erben (essay date February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Erben, Rudolf. “The Western Holdup Play: The Pilgrimage Continues.” Western American Literature 23, no. 4 (February 1989): 311-22.

[In the following excerpt, Erben characterizes Wilson's Angels Fall as a comment on the modern American West.]

With The Petrified Forest (1935), Robert E. Sherwood introduced to America a new dramatic genre, which we can call the western holdup play. Sherwood's play and the holdup formula have subsequently become the model for such significant western American plays as William Inge's Bus Stop (1955), Mark Medoff's When You Comin Back, Red Ryder? (1973), Lanford Wilson's Angels Fall (1982), and...

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Johan Callens (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Callens, Johan. “When ‘The Center Cannot Hold’ or the Problem of Mediation in Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders.” In New Essays on American Drama, edited by Gilbert Debusscher and Henry I. Schvey, pp. 201-26. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Callens cites Wilson's The Mound Builders as an “existentialist inspired portrait of contemporary life.”]

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(W. B. Yeats,...

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Christopher Edwards (review date 9 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Edwards, Christopher. “Pale and Interesting.” Spectator 264, no. 8448 (9 June 1990): 46.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards provides a favorable assessment of Burn This, specifically hailing the performance of John Malkovich as Pale.]

Theatre is a corrupt art. At any rate, live performance is a means by which flawed writing can be redeemed. Nothing new about that idea, of course, but you are forcefully reminded of it in the present production of Lanford Wilson's Burn This at the Hampstead Theatre. Anna (Juliet Stevenson) is a New York dancer whose brilliant gay dancing partner has just died. Anna and her other gay flatmate Larry (Lou...

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Lanford Wilson and John C. Tibbetts (interview date spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and John C. Tibbetts. “An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5, no. 2 (spring 1991): 175-80.

[In the following interview, Wilson discusses his early life, writing process, and career with the Circle Repertory Company.]

At the beginning of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, the character of Alan comes downstage out of the darkness. “I've been trying to tell this story, to get it down, for a long time,” he says to the audience, “—for a number of years, seven years at least—closer to ten.” Alan's lament is the playwright's dilemma. He explains that the story has been told dozens of times to...

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Lanford Wilson and Jackson R. Bryer (interview date 20 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lanford, and Jackson R. Bryer. “Lanford Wilson.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 277-96. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 20, 1993, Wilson and Bryer discuss the craft of playwriting, critical reaction to Wilson's work, and his literary influences.]

Lanford Wilson was born in 1937 in Lebanon, Missouri. After attending Southwest Missouri State College briefly and spending a year in San Diego and five years in Chicago, he came to New York in 1962. His initial plays, one-acts, were presented at the...

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Philip Middleton Williams (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Philip Middleton. “Talley's Folly: The ‘Virtually Perfect’ Play,” and “A Tale Told and Talley & Son: The Last of the Talleys?” In A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason and the Circle Repertory Theatre, pp. 73-103. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1993.

[In the following essay, Williams explores the origin and development of the second and third Talley plays: Talley's Folly and A Tale Told (revised as Talley & Son.)]

In a sense, Marshall W. Mason was responsible for Talley's Folly. It was his rehearsal technique of improvisation and character exploration that...

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Anne M. Dean (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dean, Anne M. “Balm in Gilead” and “Burn This.” In Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson, pp. 61-79, 94-122. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dean asserts that Balm in Gilead displays Wilson's talent for poetic dialogue and that Burn This is one of his most important works.]

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear—

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Balm in Gilead is the earliest and perhaps most disconcerting of Wilson's urban plays. Like his other works set in a city, this drama is both...

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James J. Martine (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martine, James J. “Charlotte's Daughters: Changing Gender Roles and Family Structures in Lanford Wilson.” In Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 37-63. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

[In the following essay, Martine investigates the evolving role of women in Wilson's plays.]

There is no inconsistency in the fact that serious and important writers can be placed in a literary tradition while the contribution of their artistic originality is applauded. It is possible to appreciate Lanford Wilson's literary affinity to Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in matters of form; his relation...

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Charles Isherwood (review date 10-16 February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Fifth of July, by Lanford Wilson. Variety (10-16 February 2003): 44.

[In the following review, Isherwood finds Fifth of July timeless.]

Written first, Fifth of July is chronologically the last in Wilson's trilogy of major plays about Missouri's Talley family. The first act takes place on the evening of Independence Day in 1977, the second the morning after.

The timing—and title—are suggestively symbolic: They hint at the play's understated ambitions as an exploration of the collective emotional hangover that followed the ebullient hopefulness of the late 1960s and early 1970s.


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Ricardo Montez (review date 3 May 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Montez, Ricardo. Review of Burn This, by Lanford Wilson. Theatre Journal 55, no. 2 (3 May 2003): 358-59.

[In the following review of Burn This, Montez explores the theme of intimacy and its relevance in a New York City setting, post-September 11, 2001.]

Burn This ends with the play's two main characters, Anna and Pale, holding each other in an embrace full of uncertainty and grief. In the first of the Signature Theatre's productions devoted to Lanford Wilson over the 2002-2003 season, the pair, played by Catherine Keener and Edward Norton, close the play with a look towards an empty bed hovering in a loft above Anna's bedroom. This...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Barnett, Gene A. “Recreating the Magic: An Interview with Lanford Wilson.” Ball State University Forum 25 (spring 1984): 57-74.

Focuses on Wilson's writing style and creative process.

———. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 170 p.

Provides extensive discussion of Wilson's life and works.

Brustein, Robert. “Post-Naturalist Triumph.” New Republic, no. 3642 (5 November 1984): 27-9.

Lauds a revival of Balm in Gilead, directed by John Malkovich, as “a stylistic triumph.”

Cooperman, Robert. “The Talley...

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